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Can the City survive Covid-19?

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Covid19 arrived in the UK at the beginning of this year. We are seeing disruption, changes and tragedy of a kind not seen for decades. Whilst it is too early to be certain about the lasting effects on the City economy and the consequent use of land and buildings, it is not too early to be analysing what could change, how the City might emerge in a different form, what opportunities there could be. In 2018 there were estimated to be 23,580 businesses in the City. A considerable number of those could be decision makers about style and location of work and therefore consequential effects.

Many organisations are examining changes. One example is the Centre for London, which describes itself as the capital’s dedicated think tank. It is politically independent and a charity. It published a report on 24th September entitled London at a Crossroads. The Centre says that “Coronavirus has upended much of what was assumed about London’s immediate future” and in combination with other events such as the climate emergency. Catherine McGuinness chair of Policy and Resources was a panel member, along with our MP, at the launch. The City is a major sponsor of Phase 1 of the research.

For the City, a key matter is planning policy. There are two pertinent plans; the local plan and the London Plan, the strategic plan for London produced by the Mayor of London. The local plan must be in general conformity with the London Plan and also with the government’s planning policy. Together those two plans form the development plan for the City against which planning applications are decided. Note: the London Plan is under review and has reached the post examination stage and now awaits agreement between the Mayor and the Secretary of State over changes required by the government.

City Plan 2036 would replace the local plan adopted in 2015 that looked to 2026. Plan making is a relatively lengthy matter. Work on the new plan began in 2016 and has reached the Proposed Submission stage, the version that would go, after further public consultation, to the Secretary of State for the appointment of an Inspector to examine it. The consultation has not yet started, delayed by Covid. The evidence base is a vital component of plan making.

The Plan relies on some GLA projections such as growth of employment to 2036 of 116,000 mostly in offices. This leads to a calculation that 2 million sq metres of new office space is needed by 2036. The Plan says that it is “vital that sufficient office space is available to meet projected demand” Of the floor space projected, 75% is expected by 2026 and indeed some is already under construction and possibly some completed. The plan provides strong protection for existing office space.

On retail, the Plan says that “demand is largely driven by City workers” and that further development is expected. We see that now at Liverpool Street.

On housing the Plan, in principle, continues policy as before. GLA projections on population and target for new dwellings are followed. Housing is directed away from the core commercial area and towards existing residential areas.

Conclusions

There are many discussions on the question whether post Covid emergency and we might add post EU transition, there would be a return to business as before or major change and if the latter of what kind and to what extent.

This context makes planning difficult. In preparing a statutory plan, the City must call on evidence and, indeed, the GLA must do so in monitoring the London Plan. The question is whether the consequences of Covid go to the fundamental assumptions of each plan. Is the pre-pandemic evidence still reliable?

The Plan envisages considerable further office space, strong protection for existing space, some new retail and some new residential development amongst other matters. This is a picture very much of a continuation of past policy.

In our view the City ought to postpone its target date for consultation on the Submission Plan pending a review in the light of an understanding of economic changes.

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